Post-Trauma Notes (Week 4): When Telling Personal Stories of Horror Produces Unexpected, Unhelpful Responses

I feel utterly vulnerable by foolishly going against sound advice.

At 10 o’clock this morning, 23rd May 2013, (see Note 1 and Note 2 below), I went to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) situated at the end of Sherwood Road in Singapore. I had made an appointment with MFA, hoping to update them on the horrific Event that took place on 28th April in Kabul, Afghanistan [Postscript correction: 29th April, not 28th].

A certain Deputy Director – let’s call him Mr T – greeted me with a friendly smile, shook my hands and sat down with his scribe, Mr Y. In a warm gesture, he acknowledged that I had wanted to arrange a meeting with MFA, and here they were, at my service.

After giving them a brief introduction of my PhD research question and the reasons for going to Afghanistan, I explained The Event in detail. Mr T kept nodding, listening attentively. Mr Y was busy scribbling on his notepad. I described the horror with as much clarity and specificity as I could remember. And each time I turned my glance towards the rapt audience, I cannot help but notice Mr T’s “Customer Service with a Smile” beam – that could have been misinterpreted as a smirk at times. It was very disconcerting. It felt almost voyeuristic.

I described most details as cogently as possible, but left out some, thinking that whatever that had transpired would not matter to him anyway. He appeared too friendly. How would anyone in a sane mind continue to smile throughout an entire recount from a victim-survivor of an assault? The nods continued and his upturned grin was a completely inappropriate response.

After 25 minutes, I ended my sharing-cum-statement with this:

“I know one of the common responses I’ll get is: ‘See lah, told you not to go to Afghanistan already’. But I am telling MFA this because, first of all, I think you should know what happened to me in Afghanistan. Secondly, as there are expats who were also involved, I thought it would be good for you to get a statement from me, on a diplomatic level with other countries. Thirdly, just in case the international media blow this up, I don’t want you to be the last to know.”

Mr T reassured me that MFA will not say “See lah, told you not to go”. He said I had gone to Afghanistan in spite of the warning. In that sense, they could not have stopped me since I had taken a calculated risk. So now that that had happened, they are here to help me. In a congenial manner, he remarked that he was glad that I was safe and that was his bottom line. Then he asked, “What exactly do you need?”

I enquired about compensation for the loss of goods and valuables.

Mr T responded and said that, first of all, since I did not make a police report in Kabul, there is no evidence of this; it is hard to verify what had happened. (In other words, I think he meant it was my word against anyone else’s word).

Secondly, he told me that they are not legally equipped to handle this since they do not know the Afghan law. Because it happened outside Singapore, the best way to ask for compensation is to ask my NGO for advice.

“Okay, fine,” I replied. “Uhm, is it possible for MFA to refer me to a counsellor?”

“We don’t have these services. We are glad that you are safe.” Mr T responded, then paused to have a look at my face, without wiping out the smile-turned-smirk. “It doesn’t look like you have any obvious injury. You look well, but of course, we don’t know. Maybe you have sleepless nights or you have nightmares. Are you still a student?”

“Yes.”

“If cost is a factor, we suggest that you go to the Polyclinic and then have a doctor refer you to IMH [Institute of Mental Health].”

My heart sank. It was a piece of advice logically crafted and professionally delivered, not something I was unprepared to hear. It was not entirely insensitive, but it felt completely ingenuous.

But deep down, I thought, surely MFA has references. We have had cases of hijacks, cases of Singaporeans in natural disasters. Is he telling me that MFA has no psychosocial support all these years? Is MFA so inefficacious and perhaps indifferent as to only shrug her shoulders and leave victims of trauma to civil servants from other ministries to handle? Are we, as a Singapore system comprising government bodies and statutory boards, so selfishly fractured that we refuse to link up within and across ministries?

Fine. I nodded.

He reminded me that if I am going anywhere in the world in the future, that I should e-register on their portal, so at least they know where I am, but not to track me down. He shook hands and left.

I walked out feeling bloody vulnerable. Naked. And exposed. I was fuming.

Actually, I was angrier with the manner in which he responded than what was actually said. Or maybe it was both, I can’t tell. My mind was not at its most logical state. The consistent smile on his face could not be wiped off, with his incessant nodding. That perturbed me deeply.

It was a learnt behavior. A behavior that projects the thinking that, “Yes, I am listening to you. You are my customer and I am here for you – with a smile.” But deeper than that façade was nothing but hot air.

I cannot help but extrapolate this experience to what the Government has sometimes been criticised of doing – not doing enough listening. Real listening, I mean. They hear, but they don’t listen. Not with their hearts. There I was recounting the horror, yet there was not a shred of genuine empathy. I could tell it was just a rehearsed response, a performance of civility without meeting my needs – a Singapore citizen suffering from post-traumatic stress.

That same night, I met up with some friends. As usual, we updated each other on what had happened in our lives since our last get-together. When I started to explain my abrupt return, they stopped eating their dinners to listen to my story. To them, it was a performance.

Even though it didn’t feel right, I went on satisfying their curiosities and answered their questions. At times, they even gave advice on what I should and could have done in that situation, which ultimately shattered my projected sense of compassion. In my heart, I screamed: This is not a bloody movie. It is not fiction. You don’t change the narrative! You don’t redirect a horror that has just been inflicted! Period.

I know they had tried to empathise with me by showing concern. Unlike the Deputy Director, they expressed shock. Not the ‘Evil Me’ grin by MFA. But somehow, their concerns manifested in totally inappropriate ways too.

I reckon that many Singaporeans do not know how to respond to stories of trauma and pain. So instead of listening intently without interruptions, my friends filled the gaps and awkward silences with questions, as if they were the crime scene investigators. I have no ill feelings towards my friends. I know they meant well. They wanted to lend support, but like Mr T, did not know how.

By the end of the day, I felt fatigued. Exhausted from telling my story over and over and over and over again. In fact, I recounted six times to various groups of people I met up with today. In a span of less than ten hours.

At this point in time, I don’t know how testimony theatre, forum theatre, autobiography theatre, ethnographic theatre, playback theatre and the like, that put victims on a stage to re-tell stories of trauma and oppression can be any helpful at all. In fact, I think we are only helping to satisfy the voyeuristic tendencies of audiences who want to be entertained by drama. Especially real-life horror stories. They are definitely more intriguing and suspenseful than Hollywood movies! But what benefits do victim-performers get from such intimate sharings? Even if told in the third person, I suspect we (applied theatre practitioners) are manipulating human emotions for authenticity, sabotaging authenticity for performance, and substituting performance for therapy, or entertainment, or social action, or interventions, oftentimes in the name of justice, equality, fairness, and, of course, human rights.

This reminded me of a social worker friend who advised me to only share stories to people who could offer me support in return. Obviously, I did not heed the advice and emotionally spiralled twenty notches down.

 Lessons learnt:

  1. As a listener, wipe that smile off your face!
  2. As a listener, do not ask questions to satisfy your own curiosity. It is not about fact-finding; rather, it is about offering support.
  3. As a victim of trauma, refrain from telling everyone you meet what had happened even though it sometimes feels like you want to be heard.
  4. As a victim, choose selectively whom you would share your story of pain, i.e. the people from whom you can get emotional support. This is intuitive. From their body language, you will know how much you want to open up, if any at all.

This reflexive exercise is not so much a complaint but an autoethnographic observation on human-cultural performance, very possibly skewed from my interpretation under duress. In fact, Richard Schechner has argued: “The habits, rituals, and routines of everyday life are restored behaviors.” Listeners had learnt to repeat “Oh my God”, “I’m so sorry”, or in my example, “What happened?”, “Why did it happen?”, “Who are they?” and “I’m glad you’re safe” in social circumstances that require some semblance of interestedness, a performance of empathy, albeit one that was both inauthentic and invasive/evasive.

I’ve learned that “the behaviour is separate from those who are behaving, [as] the behaviour can be stored, transmitted, manipulated, transformed” (p. 36, in Richard Schechner’s Between Theatre and Anthropology), that I really shouldn’t fault Mr T for his culturally learned behaviour, or my friends’ for that matter. That aside, what really saddened me from this exercise of re-telling horror stories and the unexpected, unhelpful responses received is that the “restored behaviour” of well-intentioned utterances of the listener can deeply alienate the victim in some condescending manner and further bruise the emotional-psychic state of the victim-survivor of a trauma. I think what I need now is an improvisation based on spontaneity, with the listener responding heart-to-heart to whatever emotional material that surfaces — and that, with practice, can be a newly learned behaviour, symptomatic of a more humane, compassionate society.

Surely I can avoid being re-traumatised, if only they learn how to intently listen with the heart, and not the mind.

Note 1: This was originally written on 23rd May 2013, but posted publicly on 7th June 2013.

Note 2: There are no blog entries from Week 1 to Week 3 as I was not in the mood to pen down my personal journey. But to quickly recapture the essence of past weeks, they are:
Week 1: Shaken. Sleepless nights.
Week 2: Anger and Unwillingness to Do Anything, Literally. Retail Therapy.
Week 3: Anger and Unwillingness to Engage with Some People. Routines begin (eating and gym). ‘Frantic’ meeting up with old friends everyday, filling up my schedule to the brim.

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